Middle-Class Fear: Disaster Capitalism and the Threat of Poverty

Toward the end of HBO’s documentary American Winter, Brandon is finally offered a job after viewers have watched him and his wife Pam struggle against Brandon losing his job, resulting in their being unable to pay their rent and having to live with Pam’s mother.

When Brandon is told he has the job, his new boss notes Brandon is overqualified, but Brandon eagerly explains that he is thankful for the work and committed to do whatever he can to be a good worker—despite the cut in pay and drop in job status not in his plans as a young man and husband seeking the American Dream.

In a May Experience course (a three-week mini-semester after the traditional academic calendar at my university) built on education documentaries and confronting the connection between education and poverty, two of the most powerful films include HBO documentaries—Hard Times at Douglass High and Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later. Just as these works rise above the generally poor examinations of education found among education documentaries, American Winter is another HBO success, a thoughtful and confrontational exploration of poverty against the backdrop of the American Dream as it is being tarnished by disaster capitalism [1].

The scene above with Brandon and a few other aspects of the documentary give me pause, but first, I want to highlight how the film overwhelmingly succeeds.

The place of American Winter is Portland, Oregon, and the  situation, the wake of the 2008 economic downturn that swept across the U.S. and the world. But the single greatest achievement of the film is the focus on eight families (ironically also the most troubling aspect as I will discuss below) who put “people just like us” faces on the consequences of disaster capitalism and force the audience to reconsider stereotypes of people trapped in the clutches of poverty.

The people of these narratives are overwhelmingly white and entirely from the middle and working classes—simultaneously, literally not “people just like us” (considering the increasing racial diversity of the country) but also the characteristics historically associated with the idealized middle class of the American Dream myth. It is both important and problematic that the families in this film are not victims of generational poverty, but real-world models of people who have embraced and achieved, although momentarily, some elements of that American Dream—education, careers, homes or the promise of home ownership, marriage, children, and, not to be ignored in the background throughout the video, an abundance of assorted material possessions that can be found in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across America.

Punctuating these stories are job loss, eviction, homelessness, hunger, sickness, and the frail as well as dwindling safety nets of government, church, and private organizations.

Documentaries, like all forms of nonfiction texts, are never unbiased, and always some political and ideological lens for observing a phenomenon. Too often documentaries are shoddy, careless, and misleading. American Winter wears its ideology on its sleeve, but does so effectively and with a level of integrity that lends it credibility even for those who don’t share its social justice politics.

The families are allowed primarily to speak for themselves, literally and through a patient camera following them as they wilt beneath the weight of joblessness and homelessness—especially when the children speak, cry, and personify the incredible inequity of how burdensome healthcare can be through no fault of those who find themselves sick (for example, Chelsea’s battle with bleeding ulcers leaves her mother Shanon facing $49,000 in medical bills while the family is otherwise destitute).

The film also weaves clear and confrontational statistics throughout the stories of the families. The blunt facts and harsh experiences in this documentary present a different picture than political leaders, the media, and the public tend to embrace and perpetuate: Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and seeking out social services are not the consequences of flawed individuals, but the result of systemic inequity in America’s government and economy.

The idealized American Dream may never have been a credible cultural foundation, but American Winter convincingly forces viewers to recognize that democracy and capitalism have been consumed by disaster capitalism. And here are some of the questions the film does raise as well as some of the problems embedded in an otherwise ambitious and even radical project.

“Disaster capitalism” [2] is a term associated with Noami Klein, as she explains:

People spontaneously started using “disaster capitalism” to describe what was happening with what they were seeing around them because it was so clear that this disaster was being harnessed to push through a radical vision of totally unrestricted markets. And Bush didn’t make too much of a secret of it when he announced that his idea of reconstructing the Gulf Coast was to turn it into a tax-free, free-enterprise zone.

What the book is doing that’s new is it is connecting these contemporary capitalisms, which I think most of us can easily see in Iraq and in New Orleans, and saying actually this isn’t just some twisted invention of the Bush White House. That actually there is a history. Every time there has been a major leap forward for this fundamentalist version of capitalism that really doesn’t see a role for the state, the ground has been prepared by some kind of shock.

In American Winter, the disaster is the economic downturn, but in New Orleans, the disaster was natural, Hurricane Katrina. Portland and New Orleans [3] also share a central mechanism of disaster capitalism: A disaster creates the opportunity for a workforce to be erased, the job market then contracts, and a workforce is rebuilt in reduced circumstances for the workers—lower wages, part-time positions instead of full-time employment, an absence of benefits, service positions replacing skill and managerial positions.

The events in Portland and New Orleans are stark examples that the workforce problem in the U.S. is not a lack of skilled and eager workers, but an artificially contracting business model that benefits the 1% with American workers as interchangeable widgets.

While the focus on the plight of the American worker is needed and vivid in American Winter, one consequence of the choice to examine American workers dropping into poverty is that poverty is regrettable and something to be addressed only because it can (and did) happen to the working and middle class—in other words, generational poverty is left at the side of this film and the corrosive myth that generational poverty is the fault of those in poverty remains untouched.

In fact, as the viewers’ sympathy for the eight families increases, it seems entirely likely that people in generational poverty may be viewed even more harshly than before because poverty sits as a middle-class fear in the film. The deficit and demonizing perspectives of poverty are not challenged in the film and may be unintentionally strengthened.

In its purest form, capitalism may be viewed as needing all  citizens having access to some relatively balanced reserve of capital for that consumer market to thrive, but disaster capitalism is a corruption of the distribution of capital, thriving in fact on the threat of poverty as motivation for low-wage, mind-numbing and soul-draining work. Disaster capitalism is hurt less by some having no or little capital than by the absence of poverty, an absence that would lift the necessary threat that maintains a culture of fear and a frantic pace that distracts the 99% while the 1% play.

Many scenes in American Winter haunt me, but few as much as Brandon, reduced and broken, at the end in a scene that likely was intended as one glimmer of light in a truly dark winter for these families.

But Brandon—like many of the children in these families—personifies how disaster capitalism and consumerism have created an existence whereby our humanity is almost entirely anchored to who we are as workers. Our worker self is not a subset of who we are as humans; our worker self is our self.

Ultimately, that is the greatest disaster in disaster capitalism.

[1] Listen to Steve Hargadon interview Adam Bessie and see Bessie/Archer graphic journalism series on disaster capitalism and education reform (G.E.R.M.):

[3] See Sarah Carr’s Hope against Hope, which examines how charter schools replaced the public school system in New Orleans post-Katrina.